Phil “Stewart” Petts, Beloved Assistant
You be the judge. Did Phil Petts, longtime L’Arche assistant, look anything like Jimmy Stewart, old-time Hollywood heartthrob?
Phil died on August 28 in the fullness of his eightieth year and was remembered September 24 at a “service of resurrection” at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Manchester, New Hampshire; but for the L’Arche Boston North community, who seemed to fill half the church on the first full day of fall, Phil will always be remembered as “Stewart,” as in Jimmy.
That’s thanks to Donald, one of the community’s four original core members and the self-appointed nicknamer of all people L’Arche. In Donald’s dictionary, pastoral minister Tom Murphy is “Tommy Hayes,” because of his bearded resemblance to a sidekick in old-time Westerns, Gabby Hayes. Jimmy is “J‑Bear”; Blaine is “Tuna Fish”; Todd, né “Big Shrimphead,” is currently “Bigfoot”; and Annika, one of Donald’s beloved female assistant friends, is “Oakish.” Debbie, another original core member, is “Scooby Doo.”
Phil Petts was and always will be “Stewart.” When asked, Donald explained that he named Phil “Stewart” in the old days at Peace House. Then Donald and Phil shared an apartment with Donald’s “Brother,” a/k/a the original core member also known as Phil. And in those happy days, Donald, assistant Phil, and core member Phil used to watch Jimmy Stewart movies together.
They typically went out for pizza, Donald recalled, then came home to Peace for “The Philadelphia Story,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and other Hollywood classics on the old pre-Netflix TV. Donald was very decided that they did not watch the Stewart classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” although that would have been the best possible motto for Donald, Phil, and Phil.
Phil Petts’s assistantship with L’Arche Irenicon, and his friendship with Donald, began in 2002. Plenty more stories accumulated during Phil’s fourteen years among us. Donald and core member Phil eventually moved into Assisi House; while assistant Phil began sharing time at Gandhi House. There, Phil got suckered into endless games of “Garbage,” playing cards across a table with Frannie. Asked what she remembered about Phil Petts, Fran answered in her distinctive Boston accent: “Cahds!”
Dan would probably answer “soup,” although Dan could not be interviewed for this fast-breaking story. The core member and longtime Gandhi dweller is recovering from successful orthopedic surgery in a rehab hospital near Assisi—where we can all visit him and try out his new Whoopie Cushion.
But back to Phil Petts—
At Gandhi, Phil typically shared time on Wednesday night, also known as Solidarity Night there. Solidarity involved sharing a meal of thin soup so that the balance of the day’s food budget could be sent to L’Arche Boston North’s solidarity partner, the L’Arche community in Mexico City. For years, Phil was the Solidarity Soup cook at Gandhi.
It is common knowledge in community that Dan has a general aversion to all meals not including a bacon double cheeseburger, so soup night was not his favorite. Phil and Dan had a good rapport around this conundrum. Phil would try to make something he thought Dan would eat, and Dan would usually scowl at his bowl but ultimately finish the soup.
One week when he went home to Manchester, Phil forgot his famous monastery soup cookbook at Gandhi House and Dan couldn’t resist the chance to kidnap it and hold it for ransom. Tom Murphy (who supplied this anecdote) was recruited into the scheme as photographer so that Dan could email Phil a picture as evidence of his misfortune. The ransom was blueberry pie, or blueberry cake, or blueberry cobbler, or maybe blueberry buckle, because the thing with Solidarity Soup night at Gandhi was that Phil nearly always supplemented the meager main course with a fantastic desert.
Tom Murphy supplied another picture of Phil Petts with a statue he encountered in a public park on a trip to Germany. “It was,” Tom writes, “another side of Phil that we all loved so well. It was the side of him that would lead to spontaneous waltzes, operatic interludes, or just plain goofing around. His humor was most often self-deprecating and invited the same and helped us all to not take ourselves or our work too seriously. It also just made you feel good to be around him!
“This aspect of Phil, combined with his wonderfully warm hospitality, is what I remember about my first night in community,” Tom said. “Phil invited me and Jimmy, Frank, and Steve to have dinner with him and Donald and Philip when they were all living together at Peace House. There were too many of us for the small kitchen, so Phil got a second table and arranged them at an angle in the kitchen so we could all sit together. It meant some gymnastics to serve the meal, but it was done with much laughter. It ended with apple pie too! It was a moment of profound welcome for me and helped me to feel like I was home on my first night at L’Arche.”
Final verdict on any resemblance between Phil Petts and Jimmy Stewart? Let’s just say that Phil seems to have aged better, even if he didn’t get the eyebrows.